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Rice v. Astrue

March 5, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Penny Rice seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits("SSI") pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the matter is remanded for an award of benefits.

I. Facts and Procedural Background

Plaintiff was born on October 7, 1953. She has a high school education and has worked as an apartment manager, waitress, police officer, investigator, truck driver, and bookkeeper.

(Administrative Record ("AR") at 99-105.) Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI and SSI benefits on May 24, 2006, alleging disability as of January 1, 2005, due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD") and depression. (AR at 88, 104.) Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (AR at 49, 60.) An administrative hearing was held on January 23, 2009, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas J. Gaye. (AR at 22-45.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified on her own behalf. A medical expert, Dr. David Glassmire, and a vocational expert ("VE"), Troy Scott, also testified at the hearing. (Id.)

ALJ Gaye issued an unfavorable decision on February 24, 2009. (AR at 10-18.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 1, 2005, and met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2006. (AR at 12.) Plaintiff's severe impairments were found to include major depressive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"). These severe impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet the requirements of a listed impairment found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR at 12-13.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not return to her past relevant work, but she maintained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work at all exertional levels with the following non-exertional limitations: "simple, repetitive tasks with no public contact, occasional non-intense contact with co-workers and supervisors, and no hyper vigilance." (AR at 14-17.) Finally, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled because there were a significant number of jobs in the national and local economy that Plaintiff could perform based on the testimony of the VE. (AR at 17-18.)

The Appeals Council denied review on June 9, 2009. (AR at 3-5.) After being granted an extension of time to file a civil action, Plaintiff commenced this action on September 14, 2009. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ (1) failed to properly consider the opinion of Dr. Michael Drennan, a treating psychiatrist; (2) failed to properly consider the opinion of Dr. Romualdo Rodriguez, a treating psychiatrist; (3) improperly disregarded without comment lay witness evidence; (4) improperly discredited Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; and (5) failed to pose a complete hypothetical to the VE. (Joint Stip. at 2-3.)

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's decision must be upheld unless "the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094 (9th Cir. 1999); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)(citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing court "must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1996). "If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

III. The ALJ Improperly Rejected the Opinions of Plaintiff's Treating Psychiatrists

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of her treating psychiatrists, Michael Drennan, M.D., and Romualdo Rodriguez, M.D. (Joint Stip. at 2-3.) In particular, Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's rejection of Dr. Drennan's opinion in a February 5, 2007, Narrative Report and Dr. Rodriguez's Evaluation of Mental Disorders from January 5, 2009. Drs. Drennan and Rodriguez completed these respective reports after having treated Plaintiff for at least one year.

A. Psychiatric Treatment by Dr. Drennan

Dr. Drennan treated Plaintiff at the Riverside County Department of Mental health for two years, with monthly or bimonthly appointments from June 23, 2005 through June 29, 2007. (AR at 229-40.) This treatment relationship began after Plaintiff's husband and daughter brought her to the Riverside Mental Health Clinic for an assessment of her alcohol intake on June 10, 2005.*fn1 After an initial assessment, Plaintiff was referred for psychiatric treatment with Dr. Drennan. (AR at 243-46.)

Treatment notes from Plaintiff's first appointment indicate that she previously suffered from depression but had been off of antidepressants since October, 2004. She reported feeling depressed daily, had difficulty with concentration and sleep, and had suicidal ideation with no intent or plan to carry it out. Dr. Drennan noted that Plaintiff was alert and oriented, but was "depressed/restricted, [and] somewhat tearful." He diagnosed Plaintiff with major depression, moderate and recurrent, and prescribed an antidepressant (Fluxetine). (AR at 240.) During her August and November, 2005, appointments, Plaintiff reported moderate improvements in panic and mood, but that ...

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